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Brazzil - Music - July 2004

Brazil's Musical Polyglots

What a pity that Frank Sinatra had to wait so long for his only
recorded salute to Brazil's lone Chopinesque songwriter, the
superbly-gifted Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sinatra's path-blazing
bossa nova
projects hold the distinction of being the only two
albums he ever dedicated to a single composer's body of work.

Joe Lopes


Picture Part Two: The American Side

With so much feedback received from readers concerning my previous comments about Brazil's musical polyglots, I decided to write a second, more expansive sequel devoted to the American side of this entertaining yet shamefully under-reported subject.

My original piece was prompted by a critique from Brazzil contributor John Fitzpatrick of Caetano Veloso's latest CD release A Foreign Sound, wherein the veteran pop star from Bahia, one of the co-founders in the late 1960s of the musically eclectic movement known as tropicalismo, performed cover versions of everything from vintage Irving Berlin to more recent Stevie Wonder fare.

Garnering mixed reviews for his efforts, Mr. Veloso can rest assured that he had succeeded in producing, at the very least, a fairly respectable try at American pop standards—filtered, naturally, through his own Northeastern Brazilian ethos.

It certainly wasn't his first crack at this artistically enticing musical genre, nor will it be his last. Not surprisingly, Caetano was not the only Brazilian performer to have contributed an English-language recording of what basically amounted to recycled "oldies but goldies."

Among the multitude of songs covered over the years by acknowledged native singers were those perpetrated by colleagues Milton Nascimento, Ed Motta, Marisa Monte, Roberto Carlos, Ivan Lins, Sandy & Junior, Gal Costa, and dozens more—some good, some bad, many only so-so, and leaving much to be desired in the pronunciation department.

Not that these artists' poor English ability was, whether by design or intent, the deciding factor in their relative lack of success with these hits. Essentially, and in view of the global-wide pervasiveness of MTV, hip-hop, rap, world-beat, and other cross-cultural influences, it was all a matter of style and mood.

Conversely, there are a representative number of Brazilian-inspired themes done by an equally imposing international assemblage of musicians, among them Sarah Vaughan, George Duke, Al Jarreau, Sting, Susannah McCorkle, Sadao Watanabe, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, Hendrik Meurkens, and many others, that might also fit this same bill.

Looking back at recent music history, we can note that as the market for bossa nova abounded in ever so plentiful a manner in the U.S. during the early to mid-sixties—and not only among the jazz and pop music set—it was small wonder that by the end of the decade the efficacy of the entire convoluted American obsession with the craze had come in for a well-merited questioning.

Even Elvis Presley, the self-styled King of Rock & Roll, relented at one point in his hip-swaying career and released, in 1963, a 45-rpm quickie of a bogus Brazilian novelty number, "Bossa Nova, Baby," composed by the songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

On the disc's B-side was the cabaret/nightclub staple "Witchcraft," which only goes to show how far some record producers were willing to gamble in order to cater to mass audience appeal.

The Carioca Meets the Chairman

To the rescue came what has been described as the single most outstanding, and most underrated, treatment of the form in the entire popular music canon.

For better or worse, the award for the top-of-the-list, A-Number-One, best Brazilian covers album ever would be shared (in this writer's opinion) by two back-to-back releases on the Reprise label, both memorializing the pan-cosmic pairing of the Chairman of the Board, American pop idol Frank Sinatra, with Carioca composer Tom Jobim; the albums were astutely differentiated by the titles Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, from 1967, and Sinatra & Company, recorded in 1969 but not released until '71.

These late-in-the-day nods to the core bossa repertory employed two different arrangers for the timeless Jobim tunes: the Prussian-born Claus Ogerman for Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos, and the Brazilian Eumir Deodato for Sinatra. They featured Ol' Blue Eyes smartly swinging along in relaxed, cocktail-lounge fashion to some of the Rio master's most memorable melodies.

The original 1967 LP proved especially noteworthy but was pretty much over before one knew it, barely clocking in at a miserly thirty minutes. But what a brilliant half hour of music making it was!

Particularly revelatory was the interpretation of "The Girl from Ipanema," in which Frank's trademark conversational-style phrasing is effortlessly supported by Tom's own impeccably conveyed word-painting, in an infuriatingly abbreviated vocal blend more reminiscent of a test run for Sinatra's much later Duets work on Capitol, than an estimable ensemble display.

The other Jobim tracks, spaced out evenly between the two recordings, included "Dindi," "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars," "Meditation," "How Insensitive," "Drinking Water" ("Água de Beber"), "Someone to Light up My Life," "Triste," "Don't Ever Go Away" ("Por Causa de Você"), "This Happy Madness" ("Estrada Branca"), "Wave," and "One Note Samba."

Sinatra even managed some peculiarly authentic-sounding Brazilian Portuguese on "Drinking Water," although a momentary croak had somehow crept into that once unassailable throat of his, evidence no doubt of too many late nights spent with the infamous Rat Pack; Jobim provided the sensitive guitar accompaniment.

On Sinatra & Company, the Carioca's enduring classics collided with more mundane material from the period, particularly the contemporary "Close to You," written by Hal David-Burt Bacharach and popularized by Karen Carpenter, "Leaving on a Jet Plane" and "My Sweet Lady," both the work of John Denver, and "Bein' Green" (Joe Raposo), originally introduced on TV's Sesame Street by Muppet character Kermit the Frog.

It was not, I venture to say, the sort of thing fervent Sinatra fans were looking for from the great Francis Albert back then.

In retrospect, though, his restrained, almost laid-back approach to Jobim's music was, in many ways, a triumph of art and attitude (reverential and respectful) over the prevailing pop styles (rock and psychedelia) of the time.

Pay close attention to the way Frank lingers over the phrase, "Oh, what was I to do, what can one do, when a love affair is over," from the song "How Insensitive" on Francis Albert & Antonio Carlos; how he invests it with just the right measure of regret and longing, what in Portuguese is called saudade, as he shares his bittersweet thoughts of a lost love and life lived on the edge with the gentle, soothing tones of the composer, ruminating as well in his native tongue, "Ah, por quê você foi falso assim, assim tão desalmado?" (Why were you so false to me, and so heartless?).

The linguistic nuances both artists draw from these key lines suffuse the song with psychological underpinnings. In addition, the sheer level of mutual understanding present, indicated by the simultaneous outpouring of their romantic plight—voiced, of course, in each singer's respective lyrical language—gives the number an added layer of intellectual sophistication and weight evidently undetected until now.

With stylistic fluency and complete mastery of the idiom, Frank Sinatra accomplished more than a generation ago what Caetano Veloso intrinsically tried to do today, but had ultimately failed to grasp.

Sinatra and Veloso's bucking of the official pop trends could easily have had dire career consequences, even for such established vocal talents as themselves. The end result, however, will be that one's committed efforts are oftentimes misunderstood, so that they can either be lovingly praised well after the fact, as in Frank's case, or critically panned, as in Caetano's.

It's all in how and when one's work is perceived, and by whom—sometimes by reviewers, but always by your (hopefully) forgiving record-purchasing peers.

What a pity, then, that the Hoboken-born singer-actor had to wait so long for his only recorded salute to Brazil's lone Chopinesque songwriter, the superbly-gifted Antonio Carlos Jobim; it was, by most accounts, a once-in-a-lifetime linking of like, transcontinental minds.

All in all, Frank Sinatra's path-blazing bossa nova projects hold the deserved distinction of being the only two albums he ever dedicated to a single composer's body of work.

Along Came Ella…

After this long-departed high watermark, whatever covers album anyone else subsequently tried to disseminate was, to my ears, disappointingly (and quite justifiably) met with less than half-hearted enthusiasm.

Indeed, many of these sincere but otherwise fatuous attempts at recapturing the essence of the Brazilian musical soul have all suffered ungraciously by comparison.

One of the more curious examples of this was the intriguingly titled, double-long play album of Ella Abraça Jobim: Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Antonio Carlos Jobim Song Book, compiled between the years 1980 and 1981, and put out by Pablo Records.

A natural, one would think, for this sort of extended overview, what with her acclaimed series launched several decades earlier for producer Norman Granz, on the Verve label, of the songbooks of such popular composers as Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Mercer, the sublime Ella was already long past her prime when she stepped into the Group IV Studios in Hollywood, California, for her turn at the bashful Brazilian's oeuvres.

Unfortunately for the diva, even the presence of such experienced sidemen as Joe Pass on electric guitar, Oscar Castro-Neves on acoustic guitar, Clark Terry on trumpet, Zoot Sims on saxophone, and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, could not turn back the proverbial time clock on her obviously declining vocal powers. Sadly enough, it was insufficient to reclaim Ella's glory years before the mikes.

Number after number seamlessly whiz by, while Ella wobbles and scats her heart away on the likes of "Dreamer" ("Vivo Sonhando"), "Triste," "He's a Carioca" ("Ele é Carioca"), "One Note Samba," and others; but they only make one pine for the intelligence and grace she once brought to such classics as George and Ira Gershwin's "Oh, Lady Be Good," Rodgers and Hart's "There's A Small Hotel," and Cole Porter's "Easy to Love."

While not totally wasteful of her well-documented resources, it was still a poorly rendered testimony to the glorious American jazz singer's previous recorded output, and far from her best work, when contrasted with her stellar achievements for Verve.

The reissued and digitally re-mastered 1991 compact disc version, now on one CD, lacked two of the original double-album's numbers, "Don't Ever Go Away" and "Song of the Jet" ("Samba do Avião"), due to maximum playing-time limits.

It was deserving of a failing grade for that miscalculation alone.

…As Dionne Loses Her Way

Another case in point, and a valiant but unfulfilling affair to boot, came about in 1994 from noted pop singer Dionne Warwick.

As one of her generation's most celebrated musical artists, with scores of top tens scattered all over the entertainment charts throughout the entire length of the sixties, the divine Dionne practically defined the terms "adult-contemporary" and "middle-of-the-road"—sounds we too often associate with New Age, soft rock, and the like—long before they ever came into regular usage.

She was fondly remembered, too, for having had what could genuinely be construed as several quasi-Brazilian based successes, specifically in the elegant and classy songs of David and Bacharach, "Walk On By," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Do You Know the Way to San José?"

But the years had not been kind to her, either, so much so that by the time she got around to laying down an actual album of bossa nova and samba-tinged tunes, an uncharacteristic throatiness had developed and became the main distraction of her Aquarela do Brasil on Arista Records.

The opening medley of Jobim songs, which included umpteenth versions of "How Insensitive," "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars," "Wave," and "The Waters of March," began promisingly enough, with the preceding "Retrato em Preto e Branco" ("Portrait in Black and White") setting the right romantic mood.

But again, the recently acquired dryness to the Warwick sound, as well as a pronounced and disturbing rasp, did little to compensate for the almost total absence of her former lushness.

Dionne's own composition, "Virou Areia" ("Back to Sand"), with Portuguese lyrics by Lenine and Braulia Tavares, and the Dori Caymmi number, "Flower of Bahia," are only a few of the handful of standouts, as is the cool jazz favorite, "Captives of the Heart," newly-composed for her by ex-mentor and musical guiding light, Burt Bacharach.

Regrettably, no amount of digital wizardry could possibly overcome, or even disguise, the glaring reality that by the mid-nineties Dionne Warwick had pretty much lost most of her lovely singing voice.

This is not to say that advanced age in the entertainment world can be a major deterrent in the planning of an all-Brazilian covers album or any other record, for that matter. Certainly, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, and many important older artists have proven to be the notable exceptions to that rule.

However, given the fact that plain old insight and artistry can sometimes help to patch over growing vocal deficiencies, it cannot be overlooked that subtlety and timing, as demonstrated by Sinatra, can be just as important as a rich and powerful vocal presentation, if not more so.

In any case, less is decidedly more, especially where it concerns Música Popular Brasileira. It's a valuable and much-needed lesson that many of today's so-called "pop stars"—and, by implication, their record producers—could most assuredly profit from.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and daughters. In January 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.
Copyright © 2004 by Josmar F. Lopes

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